This moment is all too familiar to local pastors: you are standing in front of the congregation, giving your best sermon and you look out to see that millennial in the pews. Someone’s daughter home for the summer or someone’s grandson who came to church as a birthday gift. You can tell by their body language & their facial expression that they would rather be anywhere else but there. This moment frustrates some leaders and discourages others. The disengaged millennial gets under your skin because you really want to reach them. You’re the kind of leader that wants to make space for them in the church. How are you supposed to do that when you can’t get them to simply raise their eyebrows during your message? Some keep trying to reach them (and I applaud you for that). Others just give up (and I get you too).
Hoping that the following words may help.
There are many reasons why millennials aren’t listening to older-generation leaders. It’s a decent sized list that includes irrelevance, judgmental rhetoric and condescension. There are many blogs and articles out there; google millennials and you’ll find them. I would like to offer one more that I think gets overlooked. It’s less an action and more of an assumption. It is the assumption of trust.
Once upon a time, a leader could assume that their congregation trusted them. Their education, their ordination or even their track record was all that was needed to win the attribute ‘trustworthy’. It isn’t that way anymore, and it definitely isn’t that way when it comes to millennials.
For this generation, trust is not an entitlement – it is earned. That might be a shock to some of you because you were raised to respect your leaders and take their word for it. And yet, in our own country we have a crisis of leadership and its root is trust. From classrooms to Congress, our leaders have made too light of the trust we placed in them. They can no longer assume that 20 years of experience or political incumbency is enough.
I can tell when a pastor is walking into the pulpit assuming that we trust them – and they will be wrong every time. If pastors want millennials to listen, they are gonna have to do the hard work of cultivating their trust. You can waste time complaining about adding this to your long list of pastoral demands, or you can reconcile your heart and mind to reality: if you want millennials to trust you, you’re gonna have to earn it. But wait, there’s more!
Earning trust is not like getting a degree. There isn’t a certain number of meetings or kind words or likes on Facebook that give you long-term trust. With millennials, you earn trust everyday. Yes, every time you step into the pulpit, you have to earn it all over again. Granted, it gets easier when you are consistent. Trust with this age group is fragile and short-lived. You can spend time trying to figure out why this is case and who is to blame, and (in my opinion) you’ll be wasting valuable time doing that. With millennials, you are always earning the right to speak into their lives and point them in the right direction. And here me on this – millennials want to be led. But they also need to know that you genuinely want to lead them. The only way that message is heard is by earning their trust, little by little, every time you see them.
As a campus minister, this is my life. Every message, every one-on-one meeting, every weekend trip is an opportunity for me to earn the chance of pastoring college students. It’s hard work and it comes with a lot of listening, responding, more listening, serving, a little more listening, absorbing pain, some more listening and a few humble apologies. These students owe me nothing and I owe them everything. They do not have to listen to me, they do not have to follow me – but I am obligated to pour my life out for them regardless. After 5 years of CCW, I think it’s working. And guess what, I’ll spend the next 5 years earning their trust. I believe it to my bones that this is the most effective mindset for pastoring millennials.
So if you have read this far, you may be asking ‘how do I build trust with millennials?’ And I’ll respond with two points. One is not so charitable, and the other is more practical.
1. Really? Have we devolved this much as a culture that we no longer know the basic steps of building trust? Have we become so entitled to it that we view it as a transaction where I give you 30 minutes of a coffee chat for 5oz of your trust? Forgive my anger, but come on people! Trust is not a commodity to be purchased.
2. How do we build trust with millennials? It looks like listening. It sounds like honoring their journey and it feels like humility. It grows by asking for permission to speak into their life and remaining open to hearing their opinions without judgment. It becomes consistent when you thank them for the pleasure of knowing them and make genuine efforts to support them.
I’ve directed these thoughts at pastors, but it easily applies to all leaders of millennials – even parents of adult millennials. And let’s get real honest now – it’s not just millennials whose trust has to be earned right? I’m not sure why we played the game so long in church. I cannot figure out why we let decades go by letting the pastors (and other leaders) assume that simply showing up was enough to garner our trust. We are a society that longs to be led, and yet find so few leaders willing to prove they’ll treat our trust as more precious than their title. Regardless, today is the day to start afresh. So the next time you look at those seemingly disengaged millennials, ask the Holy Spirit to give you the courage and compassion to humbly offer yourself to them by earning their trust. You never know friends – doing this could make a positive change in a millennial’s life.